Address: Cabrillo Hwy., Pismo Beach, CA (Lat 35.129350, Lng -120.63255) [ Map It ]
The largest concentration of migrating Monarch Butterflies in North America occurs each year in Pismo Beach, CA. The butterflies migrate to a specific Eucalyptus tree grove each year from November through February. Named the Monarch Butterfly Grove, these colorful butterflies can be found clustering in the tree tops in massive groups of hundreds if not thousands.
Of course, when you hear that more than 30,000 Monarch Butterflies will take over a tree grove, you assume that they would be flying all over the place — no so. As the sun begins to peek through the tree canopy, you will catch some of the Monarchs fluttering around higher up but most are clustered up in groups clinging to the tree branches.
Another misconception about such a large gathering of Monarch Butterflies is that when they cluster in bunches, the cluster will be this big ball of bright orange butterflies, again — no so. As the Monarchs cluster, many of them have their wings closed revealing the outer or underside of their wings, many of which are an extremely faded version of the vibrant color on top or inside part of the wing when open (the bright orange and black side you most often see as they fly).
Not to take away from this massive butterfly migration, many photographers walk away disappointed by not having brought the right camera gear along in which to photograph them. Your iPhone or small instamatic camera isn’t going to catch much unless you find a butterfly on the ground or on a fence post resting, and then it’s only one butterfly and not the thousands up above.
Capturing the Shot: You are going to need two lens for this photo shoot. A telephoto lens of between 200mm and 400mm to photograph the Monarchs, and your favorite walk around lens (which I’ll get to latter in this article). The butterflies are pretty high up in the trees and in order to capture that great shot of a Monarch Butterfly in all of its glory and color, you are going to need a lens capable of framing a butterfly 25 to 50 feet away. While the distance doesn’t sound like much, with a kit lens of 18-55mm, it’s like photographing a needle in a haystack — good shot of the hay but not much else, and certainly not a small needle. So, you want enough lens to get up in their tiny faces and frame them in small groups for the best shots, and this is where a telephoto lens comes into play.
I brought along my Canon f/2.8 70-200mm lens for the shoot. This lens produces a great bokeh and performed like a champ. However, there were many times when I wished I had more reach and had to pass on some great photos because I just didn’t have enough zoom, but still, because it is such a fast lens, I think it might be best for this particular shoot. A 400mm lens will give you the distance but sacrifice much of your background bokeh. It really depends on the shot that you’re looking to capture. For close ups, you certainly want the 400mm. For the small groups of butterflies clustered together, the 70-200mm is a great choice.
I also brought along a polarizing filter for my lens and did some test shots with it originally. I ended up going without it as the tree grove is much like a dark shaded area and the sunlight is up above and a direct ray of sunlight can be masked behind a tree branch by simply moving to the left or right just a bit.
Your camera settings will vary based on the time of day that you visit the grove, but most shots will be shooting up into the trees with rays of sunlight poking through the thick tree canopy.
The Monarch Grove itself is rather small. Set in a circle, you can pretty much walk the entire circle in a matter of minutes. So, take your time, choose your spot and while setting up your tripod, take special note of who’s around you. Children are often running around and most everyone is looking up into the trees while walking around aimlessly, so keep a secure hand on your tripod at all times just in case of an accidental bump by a passerby.
Also, in the grove, there are several public telescopes set up for some up close viewing of the butterflies in the trees. Feel free to use one to find the cluster of butterflies that are to your liking and then set up near them. You can pretty much set up anywhere in the grove and capture some great shots but some clusters are most active than others as well as being more colorful.
Now that you have your Monarch Butterfly photos, you’re not done just yet. Many people overlook the trails around the tree grove. Grab your favorite walk around lens and go seek out these trails. A small creek runs along the edge of the tree grove providing many photo opportunities. A bridge takes you across the creek to the trails. I came away with some great and very unexpected photos while on these trails. The trail to the right is directly adjacent to the tree grove and individual Monarchs can be found resting on a bush giving you a private showing as these trails don’t usually attract the crowds that the grove itself does. The trail to the left will wind around and lead you directly away from the tree grove and to some wind twisted trees on a hill, then once over that rise, sand dunes will lead you down to the ocean. All of these, the wind twisted trees, the sand dunes and the ocean will provide for some great photo opportunities.
Admission to the Monarch Grove is free and street parking is also available. However, if you visit when the grove is busy and street parking might make your walk to the grove rather lengthy, you can park in the residential area directly across the street but you must come in the back way in order to reach it, so check your car’s navigation to spot it. From the residential area, it’s just a short walk across the railroad tracks and street and into the grove. The railroad tracks may also provide for a quick photo opportunity.